The Canadian Government recently formally apologised, in a special Parliamentary session, for Canada’s treatment since the days of colonisation of indigenous people.
Saying ‘sorry’ is important. New Zealand has formally apologised for our treatment of indigenous people and has legislated, and is paying millions of dollars to settle grievances for property stolen, in a genuine effort to settle our historic injustices.
It is now, in New Zealand, a matter of political consensus. This is healthy. It is something we are proud of; we are trying in an imperfect way to remove these scars from our history.
Mind you, we are a sorry lot, we have apologised to Samoan’s after New Zealand took responsibility for Samoa from Imperial Germany after the First World War. We also apologised for our treatment of Chinese migrants who were subject to special poll taxes and prejudice 120 years ago.
Some argue that the present generation should not be held responsible for the sins of their great, or great, great-parents. Acceptance of liability also opens current leaders to demands to pay compensation.
That’s why it took Australia so long to say sorry for Australia’s dreadful treatment of aboriginal peoples. When the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, did so, there were tears in the street.
An apology is not enough; economic policies and social programmes then need to be implemented to redress the imbalances that exist because, to our shame, indigenous people dominate all the worst statistics.
It’s political dynamite because the majority of people in NZ, Australia and Canada are from European extraction, and opportunistic politicians are out there ready to use the fears and prejudice of many that somehow this is special treatment, even claiming indigenous people are now privileged.
The blunt implementation of specific policies to help indigenous people can create a new tribal elite as all as government programmes tend to be captured by special interests. This doesn’t change the principles involved.
Explaining all this to African friends recently was instructive, African politicians were perplexed. “Haven’t you accepted the rights of conquest?” I was asked, “Should Europeans be the only ones to regret slavery?” I replied.
African and Latin Americans seem the most reluctant to consider the rights of indigenous peoples. In the preparation for a major international conference in South Africa on racism and xenophobia, a call was made, in the typical anti-American theme of the day, that Americans should pay compensation for slavery.
I embarrassed the Irish convenor by suggesting that perhaps we should first get the English to pay compensation for the potato famine. The English and Americans have apologised, it’s liberating for all sides.
It doesn’t solve injustice on its own but it’s cleansing, most faiths believe in forgiveness and redemption, but that always begins with remorse.
Chinese friends, too, were interested in this process. I explained to them one of the most profound experiences of my life. The great German leader, Willy Brandt, told me of the most important moment in his political life.
He was the first German leader to visit Poland after the War. He was to lay a wreath in memory of the victims and fallen of the War. It was, he told me, a day super-charged with history, emotion and pain for all.
He walked to the memorial with the wreath, through a line of grim, silent Polish soldiers, an Honour Guard. He was burdened by the guilt of history. Then, as he stood to lay the wreath, he fell to his knees and wept.
He said he broke down, so awful was the moment. He wept and wept. Then some soldiers put down their rifles and held him, and they wept too. “I’m so sorry,” he cried. Then there was an enormous feeling of relief. This, he said, was the most important thing he had done.
Unplanned, no polling, not a cynical photo opportunity. He didn’t realise how important this was until after it happened. Willy Brandt got misty-eyed when he told me this story.
The Chinese were silent when I told them this story, because I, too, was emotional. The silence was broken when a Chinese leader looked around the table and said, “If only a Japanese leader could do that.”
We can only start again when we acknowledge our past, moving on needs to be based on an acceptance of wrong-doing. All this provides the grace, space, and often the pace to build painfully imperfect progress.
The ghosts and demons of past injustices will continue to haunt us as these issues are convenient for opportunistic politicians on all sides to manipulate for their own ends.